Scepter of the Ancients, Skulduggery Pleasant Series, Book 1, by Derek Landy, illustrations by Tom Percival, 416 pp, RL 4
The Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy, illustrations by Tom Percival, despite the fact that it is currently only three books long, has had three different cover designs as well as a title change since book one, Scepter of the Ancients (the new title of the first book in the series) was published in 2007. Since I often judge a book by it's cover, this phenomenon caught my eye right away. The above covers are my favorite - the girl in the illustration, Stephanie, is one of the main characters and also one of the coolest girls in young adult fantasy fiction to come along in a while. The cover to the left is my second favorite, since it still gives you a little taste for the character of Skulduggery Pleasant, the coolest skeleton detective to hit the pages, ever. The covers at the bottom of the review are the newest incarnations of the books. And, while they are attractive, I'm not sure that they fully convey all the wonderful, creative details that make up the books. But how many covers really do that anyway?
While this series has equal gender appeal, what I love most about it is the character of Dublin resident, Stephanie Edgely, who is twelve when the series begins. For me, Stephenie and this series of books is most readily calls to mind to Eoin Colfer's phenomenal Artemis Fowl series. Whereas Colfer's main characters, aside from Fowl and his family, are mythical creatures who possess certain degrees of magical powers but rely heavily on technological spy gear and weaponry to battle evil forces, Landy's main characters are humans who have learned the craft of magic (and been adversely affected by it in some cases) and posses the skills to imbue everyday objects (cars, clothing, mirrors) with it in their constant efforts to fight the evil forces that continually want to exert their power over the human race. Stephanie, although she is not a child genius like Artemis, is a very savvy girl who yearns for a break in her quiet, middle class, only child life. She gets this break when her Uncle Gordon, her father's brother, dies unexpectedly. Gordon Edgely was a world famous, best selling author of adult horror novels, someone along the lines of a Stephen King, I imagine. As a young man, his interests and friends took him away from his more staid brothers, Desmond and Fergus, resulting in a family that was not especially close knit, although certainly not estranged. Stephanie, however, loved her Uncle very much and spent quite a bit of time with him at his estate, nearby her home in Haggard, Ireland. Always a bit precocious, Stephanie has read all of her Uncle's books and enjoyed them. At the reading of Gordon's will, she is shocked to learn that, upon her eighteenth birthday, she will inherit most of his estate and wealth. Shortly thereafter, she is surprised, but not shocked, to learn that most of the events and creatures Gordon wrote about in his books are real, that magic exists and that Gordon hovered on the edge of a group of magicians who battled to keep order in the world.
While the battle of good versus evil in the world of fantasy is a well worn theme, Derek Landy brings many clever twists to his characters and their magical attributes. First, Landy is brilliant when it comes to character names. As Stephanie learns in Book 1, Scepter of the Ancients, everyone "has three names: the name they are born with, the name they are given and the name they take. The name they are born with, their true name, lies buried deep in their subconscious. The name they are given, usually by their parents, is the only name most people will ever know. But this name can be used against them, so sorcerers must take a third name to protect themselves." By the middle of Book 1, Stephanie has chosen her name and, when Book 2, Playing with Fire, begins, she is referred to by this name almost exclusively. Some of the great names from this series that occasionally had me pulling out my dictionary are Skulduggery Pleasant, of course, China Sorrows, Ghastly Bespoke, Sagacious Tome, Serpine Nefarian, Vaurien Scapegrace, Billy Ray Sanguine, the mysterious Mr Bliss, I could go on and on.
As for magic, Derek Landy's characters can really cook up some creepy stuff. The magicians' Sanctuary, which is secretly (brilliantly) housed in the Dublin Waxworks Museum, is guarded by Cleavers who, with their grey helmets that hide their faces are, "security guards, enforcers, and army rolled into one." The bad guy in book one, Serpine, who already has an army of Hollow Men, papery, human-like fighting guards, manages to create a White Cleaver, even deadlier and harder to stop than the originals. There is also the underground cavern that is full of tentacle laden, beastly menaces which is where the Scepter of the Ancients, the seat of the power wielded by the Faceless Ones, the first and most powerful magicians, is hidden. China Sorrows, an enchantingly beautiful woman, runs a very useful library full of magical tomes she has collected. And, finally, there is the manner in which the characters perform magic themselves. As Stephanie begins to learn basic magic, much of which requires power of the mind, Landy does a wonderful job describing this process. When Stephanie attempts to levitate up to her second floor window upon returning home, Landy writes, "She took her time, felt the calmness flow through her. She flexed her fingers, feeling the air touch her skin, feeling the fault lines between the spaces. She felt how they connected, and recognized how each would affect the other once the right amount of pressure was applied... She splayed her hands beneath her, and the air rippled and she shot upward, just managing to grab the windowsill." Upon arriving in her room, Stephanie encounters the other super-cool bit of magic Landy has conjured up - the reflection. After casting a spell on Stephanie's full length bedroom mirror, the image becomes her "reflection," a surface copy of Stephanie that, when invited to do so, steps out of the mirror and lives Stephanie's life for her while she runs around town fighting villains with Skulduggery. Her reflection goes to school, has dinner with her parents but has no thoughts or feelings of her own. When the real Stephanie comes home and encounters her reflection, all of the events of the reflection's day come flooding back into her. Imagine if we could all have reflections, how much we could get done....
Despite the cover changes and a much higher level of physical action (read: fights) than I am used to in a novel, I could not put these books down and, now that I have finished them, I find myself thinking about characters and passages from the stories often. Since I began my blog, I rarely read more than the first book in a series, and that was my intention with the Skulduggery Pleasant books, but I ended up reading them all. I have to admit, I am a naive and hopeful reader when it comes to books, kid's books especially. I want every book I read (for review) to leave the reader feeling warm, fuzzy and cheerful about being part of the human race. I also want the book to be well written and profound. This attitude probably accounts for my gradual, unconscious decision to stop reading adult fiction. Well written adult books tend to focus on the ways in which we screw up our lives more than the ways in which we make them better. While I wish I could say that the Skulduggery Pleasant books meet my unsophisticated ideals and are literature on the level of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy, I can't. However, after much thought I realized that these books, all books, don't have to meet my high minded ideals to be worthwhile, readable and, above all, enjoyable - which is exactly what the Skulduggery Pleasant books are. Derek Landy's writing is highly entertaining and not without serious content and value. While he doesn't tackle philosophical and theistic issues the way Pullman's books do, he doesn't have to. Landy has created complex characters with faults, values and goals - despite their lack of musculature and epidermis, in some cases...